SIERRA VISTA — Police officer applications for the Sierra Vista Police Department have plunged dramatically this year compared to 2020, officials say, a trend that’s being mirrored nationally in other cop shops and one that’s forcing recruiters to get creative as they struggle to attract the best applicants possible.

Sierra Vista Police Chief Adam Thrasher said that in talking with other law enforcement officials, he’s found the situation is fueled mainly by the anti-cop sentiment that has pervaded the country over the last few years, particularly the “defund the police” movement of late.

Additionally, talk of removing certain protections that law enforcement officers enjoy that shield them from being sued personally if they commit an error on the job has caused potential applicants to shy away from the profession, Thrasher said.

So far this year, SVPD has received only 71 applications for police officer positions, said Thrasher and recruiter Lilly Perry. That’s down more than half the applications the department received last year.

“At one time we received about 300 applications,” Thrasher said. “We’re just not getting the number of applicants that we’ve had in the past.”

A high number of applicants doesn’t translate into police officers, Thrasher said.

“Historically, we’ve had a two-to-three percent success rate of applicants getting through our process,” the chief added. “It’s a matter of getting more people through.”

In the last executive report prepared by Sierra Vista administrators for the City Council, the police department wrote: “Recent recruitment efforts have been hit and miss in recruiting qualified individuals to serve as police officers with the city of Sierra Vista. Getting qualified candidates that are willing to take the personal risks during the current national environment surrounding law enforcement has proven difficult. The lack of candidates is a nationwide issue that stems from the events over the last year and the well-publicized “defund the police” movement. Despite these challenges, the department is finding some quality candidates.”

At the moment there are six vacancies at SVPD. There are five candidates going through the police academy in Douglas, Perry said, and two in field training, Thrasher said.

That’s not enough.

The department is expecting 17 retirements over the next five years, Perry said. As younger officers are promoted into those upper echelon positions, there will be vacancies among the lower ranks.

At that rate, Perry said, the department would have to hire at least eight officers per year to keep up with the attrition.

The one silver lining, Thrasher said, is that those who are applying seem genuinely interested in police work.

While SVPD competes with other departments across the state and the Southwest for what Thrasher called “the same bodies,” efforts are also being made to recruit “home grown” individuals into the force.

In order to join SVPD, you must be 21 years old, Thrasher said. That’s state law.

“You can be 20 when you start the application process, but you must be 21 when you graduate the academy,” he said.

Of course, being a police officer is not for everyone and it is a taxing job, Thrasher said.

“It’s very difficult to get people who want to do the job,” Thrasher said. “It’s a difficult job in the first place, then on a national scale the profession is being criticized so heavily.

“There is also a lot of talk about taking away some of the personal protections officers have if they make genuine mistakes,” Thrasher added. “If you take those protections away and they (the officers) become personally liable for genuine mistakes, not intentional wrongdoing, but genuine mistakes, they can lose their home, their retirement. Qualified immunity is what protects police officers from liability for genuine mistakes.”

The chief said that’s a “high liability” for a job that entails “high risk.” He mentioned that Arizona, however, still offers qualified immunity for its law enforcement officers.

Regardless of those hurdles, Thrasher and members of his staff such as Perry, fellow recruiter Lt. Armin Lewis, and Commander Chris Hiser all agreed that SVPD enjoys a good relationship with its citizens and that makes the job easier.

“I still think that the public in general still supports the police,” Thrasher said. “It’s just the publicity that’s causing an issue.”

The chief suggested another possible factor behind the low number of applications could be attributed to people who have been working from home and setting their own schedules — courtesy of COVID-19 — who no longer want to pound the pavement or do shift work.

“You cannot work from home in police work,” Thrasher said. “You have to patrol the streets.”

Perry agreed, saying she receives about one application every two weeks.

As a result, recruitment efforts by SVPD are being taken out-of-state throughout the Southwest.

Hiser, meanwhile, said one of the points he likes to make when he meets potential applicants is that Sierra Vista is not Seattle or Portland where bloody clashes between police and some members of the public have played out on the national news.

“We certainly understand the apprehension that some folks have these days about getting into law enforcement,” Hiser said. “But we emphasize that you can’t compare us to Seattle or Oregon or what you see in the newspapers. We actually have a very good relationship with our community.

“We bring people in and we show them that we’re going to train them to build these good relationships with the community and still do quality policing. It can actually be very rewarding.”

Hiser said the department welcomes individuals who have worked in other fields and may be seeking a career change. He said people who have worked in other jobs and become cops always bring with them the “life experiences” that contribute to being a good police officer.

With the upcoming retirements, Perry said this is a good time to join SVPD because there are opportunities for advancement. While you must be 21 to join the agency, there is no other age limit, Thrasher said, provided the applicant passes the physical requirements, tests and background checks.

“We currently have one person in the academy who is 54 years old,” he said.

Echoing Hiser’s words, Perry said the department has several successful officers who had a prior career.

“There’s always people out there who have always been interested in law enforcement, but for some reason they’re not sure,” Perry said. “If there’s someone out there who’s thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to do it but I don’t know,’ reach out to me.”

Perry can be reached at 520-439-2370 or at lilly.perry@sierravistaaz.gov.

Anyone interested in learning more about SVPD can visit Perry and Lewis this Friday at a first responders job fair at The Mall at Sierra Vista from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.